AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has seen the future of organized labor — and it is a movement that doesn't necessarily include union members.
In an August 7 interview with USA Today, Trumka confirmed something that had been rumored for weeks: The union coalition will amend its bylaws next month and start accepting people who don't belong to unions.
What that means is that the 12 million-member AFL-CIO is going to partner itself even more closely with liberal groups, especially environmentalists, immigrant rights activists and other civil rights organizations.
The move raises the question of whether organized labor will continue to be primarily about labor or will it water that down when that agenda conflicts with other progressive groups. It's a concern Trumka himself conceded.
"Will it dilute us? Look, here's the way I look at it: What we've been doing the last 30 years hasn't worked real well. We need to do things differently," Trumka told the newspaper.
Big Labor has been heading in this direction for years. For example, unions formed the Blue-Green Alliance with the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2006.
The intention there was to push for federal investment in green energy policies that would also create jobs. But it has also resulted in the AFL-CIO holding back on policies its member unions favor but that environmentalists oppose.
For example, the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department has called for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, the AFL-CIO leadership itself has refused to endorse it.
Similarly, the AFL-CIO has evolved into a strong supporter of immigration reform. That may explain why the Communications Workers of America hasn't called for the Senate bill's defeat despite its harsh criticisms of the legislation's high-tech visa program.
Trumka wants to cement these alliances further. "We're in conversations with the AFL-CIO about a more formalized partnership," Sierra Club national political director Cathy Duvall told USA Today.
Big Labor evidently hopes the concessions to other liberal groups will boost their latest organizing efforts. These rely heavily on public protests to create "top down" pressure on nonunion employers to come to the bargaining table.
Unions are backing a variety of activist groups like OUR Walmart and the Restaurant Opportunity Center to do this. As nonprofits, these groups don't necessarily need union members at their events — but they do need people to show up. Creating groups of nonunion union activists would fill this need.
Trumka was forthright about why the AFL-CIO was making this move: It needs to swell its ranks if it is going to survive.
The numbers are stark. Organized labor currently represents just 11.3 percent of workforce (public and private sectors), down a half point in just a year, according to the Labor Department. That's nearly half what it was in 1983, the first year the feds started collecting the data.
Only 6.6 of the private sector workforce, about 7 million people, is currently unionized. There are actually more public sector union members (7.3 million) than private ones.
Union leaders have sought in vain in recent years to boost the ranks. A renewed emphasis on electoral politics over the last decade has helped Democrats, but they haven't been able to deliver the big things like card check — which would make organizing radically easier — in return.
Traditional workplace organizing isn't making up the losses either. The rival Change to Win coalition — whose members split AFL-CIO in 2005, arguing it hadn't done enough ground-level organizing — is sputtering. One of its founders, the United Food and Commercial workers, rejoined the AFL-CIO on August 8.
Even more worrisome for union leaders is that right to work laws are getting a revival in Rust Belt states like Indiana and Michigan, labor's home turf.
Big Labor is now hoping that the kind of liberal activism seen during Occupy Wall Street's heyday can be organized and maintained. It's a gamble, but then again what other options do they have?